A lesson for modern management
After several decades of interaction with the IT industry in all its many forms, in addition to my role as magazine editor when I could see how the publishing industry works from the inside, I can safely say that one over-arching characteristic of modern management is a ‘can do’ attitude.
And this is all very well, and helpful to achieve project goals by instilling a sense of momentum and enthusiasm among those tasked with carrying them out. It’s built into modern managers that they must be positive: to be anything else, especially in front of your peers, is frowned upon; being negative is not a career-enhancing move.
But there are times when that attitude is positively and absolutely counter-productive. Most of the time, we on the outside don’t see this: internal corporate mistakes are usually covered up, no-one admits that an commercial organisation could possibly have done anything incorrectly – or as journalists like to say, fucked up – for fear of damaging reputations, share prices, product sales and so on.
There’s a prime example of how ‘can do’ became ‘can’t do’ that came to light because it affected tens if not hundreds of thousands of people. And the dirty laundry had to be washed in public because – hey – public money was involved. I’m talking about the railways, and how a timetabling process that should have worked didn’t, in part because of various forces majeures, but mainly because of the inability of a group of managers to accept that a project could fail if they carried on with it.
A new British railway timetable was introduced in May 2018, and it didn’t work. The consequence was that hundreds of trains had to be cancelled, more were hugely late and the days of many, many travellers were ruined. Only by removing hundreds of services from the timetable was a semblance of order restored. It was a mess, and it cast the railway industry in a poor light.
There was a variety of reasons for this. There weren’t enough drivers in the south and, in the north, track work that was planned to have finished hadn’t been because of unanticipated ground conditions, for example. But mostly it was because those in charge didn’t galloped ahead with a timetable they weren’t sure was going to work.
What went wrong?
Railway timetables are fiendishly complicated things. Not only do enough track paths have to be found for the services that train operating companies (TOCs) want to run, they have to fit in around a range of other factors such as engineering and maintenance possessions, driver rosters and availability, different train acceleration and braking characteristics, freight trains, gradients, and variables known and unknown such as weather, station dwell times and so on.
Normally the planning for a railway timetable in the UK starts about 65 weeks before implementation, known in the trade as T-65. A variety of iterations then ensues as TOCs bid for track space to run their services, and Network Rail (NR), the organisation tasked with drawing up the timetable, examines the bids and either accepts them, or rejects them if it believes they are unworkable. If the latter, the TOC has to think again and re-present its bids. By T-12, the timetable is supposed to be cast in stone, as that’s the date that advance tickets – which are tied to specific timetabled trains – go on sale to the public.
Most timetable changes, which happen in May and December each year, are fairly minor. But the May 2018 timetable was different.
One of the big differences was the fact that Govia Thameslink Railway (GTR) had a huge number of changes to the timetable to submit as a result of new Thameslink services that were planned to run through London Bridge, under central London, and onto the East Coast main line. Initially up to 20 new trains per hour (tph) were planned, though this was eventually reduced to 18 tph to allow for bedding in. But its initial bids for the hundreds of new train paths were rejected by NR, resulting in the iteration process going back and forth for weeks.
Long story short, GTR’s new services overwhelmed the process, which had never in recent memory had to cope with that volume of changes. It took a long time and only at T-3 was the timetable finally declared ready. But it wasn’t, and it was only the week before the new timetable was due to go live that GTR realised it had a problem: when the TOC overlaid its driver rosters onto the new timetable, they didn’t match, as the company didn’t have enough drivers with appropriate route knowledge to run the new services.
There was an Industry Readiness Board set up specifically to manage implementation of the new GTR services, on which were represented all stakeholders, including NR and GTR. It had the final say on whether the new timetable should go ahead. But, as Modern Railways magazine reported in its September 2018 issue, when the chair of the committee Chris Gibb, an experienced railwayman, asked if the changes should go ahead, no-one put their hand up to say they should not.
An NR manager on the board, John Halsall, said that at the point where it could have been stopped, T-26 in November 2017, everyone believed the new timetable could be delivered. He said: “That ‘can do and get on with it’ approach, which was so helpful up to a point, was actually the problem when we got to the split second when we could have put our foot on the ball: ‘everybody said, no, we can do this, and we must push on’.”
NR’s systems operations manager Jo Kaye identified the problem: “Everyone was in a spirit of hugely positive forward momentum to make [the timetable] happen. Perhaps because of the culture, of being so keen to deliver, blinded us in some way to the risks.”
So basically, collective lemmingness happened: no-one dared challenge the prevailing ‘can do’ culture for fear of being declared a negative ninny. There’s a lesson there for us all.